There is an enigmatic quality to Art Spiegelman’s survival guilt, a guilt which presents itself subtly in Book I and much more palpably in Book II. This ambiguity, so to speak, stems from a perplexing notion. That is, how could one of the only characters in Maus not to have been in the Holocaust have survival guilt? How, out of all those portrayed throughout the work who watched their friends and families slaughtered, could Art Spiegelman be the one who is guilty for surviving? It is, ironically enough, the fact that Spiegelman was not in the Holocaust that violently facilitates his survival guilt. His assumed inability to grasp the genocide, combined with the daunting task of representing the millions of unheard victims, creates guilt within him for not being there, which is only augmented by Vladek’s burning of Anja’s diary. Of course, this guilt is also manifested prominently in the ghost of his brother. In the end, he could never be Richieu, benevolently set in stone, and he would always represent that which the father could not have back—his family.While this discourse will deal mostly within the confines of Book II, it is important to note the catalyst in Book I that not only magnifies the guilt felt by Spiegelman, but also increases the very nature of his guilt, a nature which moves undecidedly between self-pity and outward aggression towards others. This catalyst, of course, is the revelation at the end of the first part of the series—that of the diary burning.To understand the importance of the diary burning, one must first address the author’s uncertainty about approaching his topic. How can he grasp, in any way, the most tortuous and debauched display of humanity in history? This is, as one frequently sees, a predicament faced by many who have written of the Holocaust, Primo Levi perhaps being the best example. For Spiegelman, though, this uncertainty is exacerbated by his distance from the Holocaust. That is, he never experienced the camps, the stealing, the bitter cold, the smell of burning flesh. In this way, only two things can connect Spiegelman to Auschwitz—his father and his mother’s journal. The former of these sources is the more subjective, especially given the relationship Spiegelman has with Vladek. The latter, however, is an objective piece of empirical footage he can use to effectively portray his parents’ ordeal. Thus, when Vladek reveals he burned the journal, Spiegelman bellows, “You Murderer!” not only because the father murdered Anja’s memory, but because he massacred the last chance the author had to completely understand what so many say no one ever could (Maus I 159). Within the first few pages of Book II, and therefore directly after the burning of the diary is divulged, the reader is given the first clear portrayal of Spiegelman’s survival guilt. The uncertainty that is alluded to through tone within the first book is now made apparent with Spiegelman’s questioning, “How am I supposed to make any sense out of Auschwitz?” (Maus II 14). His tortuous conversation with his wife—covering anything from which parent he would have saved to how diligent, even somewhat psychotic, his parents were in their search for Richieu—is a testament to his now overwhelming guilt. The guilt, though, is now moving from one of passive self-consciousness to one of violence and blame. His father “drives [him] crazy,” and it is this strained relationship which causes him to think so aggressively. Naturally, this strain is stretched to a precarious length by his father’s burning of the diary. His reaction, thus, is certainly one controlled more by emotion than by true culpability (the culpability of his father that is), and he could have, or rather should have taken the burning as a sign of his father’s own pain, rather than selfishly seeing how it affected his own guilt and even writing. Moving on, Spiegelman’s guilt in relation to his brother is perhaps the most telling and yet ambiguous feelings the reader sees in the writer. Spiegelman is, in the end, Richieu’s doppelganger, and yet he is also his foil, at least in the father’s eyes. Vladeck sees Spiegelman as the physical representation of his first born, but never the emotional or familial representation. In fact, regarding the latter, Spiegelman is the antithesis of Richieu. If the implementation of smoking throughout the books shows anything, it is that Vladeck, whether intentionally or not, tells his son he would never have survived the camps. Constantly cigarettes save Vladeck’s life as bartering tools, which apparently implies, given Spiegelman’s habitual smoking, that the writer would not have lasted if put in the position of his father. Spiegelman’s prodigality, too, is something Vladeck comments constantly about, most notably in his son’s poor purchase of a tape recorder (Maus I 73). All of these shortcomings, shortcomings that make Spiegelman human, never existed within Richieu. For this, the writer feels Vladeck is more Richieu’s father than his own. This unsettling feeling culminates in Spiegelman’s most clear and literal admission of survival guilt. As his wife relates and stresses that “[Vladeck]’s your father,” the author is brought to a climactic release, yelling “Stop! I feel guilty enough already!” (Maus II 120). Spiegelman’s guilt is, in the end, ineffable and undefinable. Throughout his story he is constantly faced with the unquantifiable pressure of telling humanity’s most regrettable story. All the while, he is tormented by his dead mother, neurotic father, and ghost of a brother. These coalesce on a psychological level to effect a daunting and alarming survival guilt, a guilt that the writer, one could assume, will never truly be free from. Works CitedSpiegelman, Art. Maus I My Father Bleeds History. New York: Pantheon, 1986.Spiegelman, Art. Maus II And Here My Troubles Began. New York: Pantheon, 1986.
In “Maus II” by Art Spiegelman a series of three panels helps to encapsulate a continuous theme throughout the two part story. In these panels Artie and Francoise are in the car driving to assist Artie’s father who has just been left by his second wife. In the car Artie claims that “I never felt guilty about Richieu. But I did have nightmares about S.S. Men coming into my class…I wish I had been in Auschwitz with my parents so I could really know what they lived through” (16). Artie struggles with his relationship with his father, the death of his mother, his ghost-brother, and his attempt to recreate the Holocaust in a comic strip. All of these struggles connect back to his lack of common experience. He knows that due to the difference in their pasts, the difference in their upbringing, in many ways he is distanced from his family, people he cannot seem to fully understand. The series of panel mentioned before, along with the highlighted dialogue, capture Artie’s inability to connect with his family and their story due to a significant difference in their lack of shared history.The Holocaust, to Artie, was something horrible and unfathomable that his parents experienced and lived through. This part of his family history is not an element of life that makes him connected to his parents through lineage, but creates a gap in their relationship. He often worries that he does not understand fully their experiences, as he did in the car with his wife. Artie in asking his father for his story is attempting to understand, he wants to be able to capture the survival of his father, the survival of his family, and subsequently himself, in his art. However, many times throughout the graphic novel Artie reveals his despair in failing at his task. Even after the publication of his first graphic novel on his father’s story Artie worries that he has inappropriately captured his father and that the work can never do the experience justice. Additionally, Artie blames his father’s personality on the Holocaust. His father is stingy with money, willing to live on next to nothing. He is demanding, coarse, and judgmental. As a reason behind his personality Artie claims that his father’s past has shaped this character in him. That the Holocaust is the reason he will throw away nothing, and do nothing with money but save it. He believes that the Holocaust is the reason that his father is so surly, that surely his attitude is a product of his rough life. His father lived through a death trap, Artie can never measure up to that, and can never be as accomplished as his father. This is what Artie believes, what he thinks, what keeps him at arm’s length from his father. His lack of shared history, his inability to experience the Holocausts drives him into creating a world where his father and he cannot coexist in mutual understanding. In the car with his wife, Artie speaks of his ghost-brother and the impact that has had on his life. Richieu was the first son, the boy that knew the Holocaust, the boy that did not survive the Holocaust. His parents cherish the picture of this son. They recall the memory their son as the perfect boy he was. This perfection plagues Arties. He feels that he is constantly competing with a ghost to gain the approval of his parents. His brother was a mere five or six when he died, allowing him to be the picture of perfection to his parents. Richieu would not have chosen the life Artie had chosen, he would have “married a rich Jew,” and known the suffering that his parents knew. Richieu is the missing generational link from Artie to his parents. He, as a son, would be able to relate to Artie and his existence before the Holocaust creates a shared history. However, his death pushes Artie further from his parents, because now Artie must face a brother he never met in order to prove himself a worthy son in the eyes of his parents. As he sees it, he can never measure up to the perfection of his ghost brother – a person who symbolizes the happiness his parents knew before the war even began. The Holocaust is a part of Artie’s family history. That fact will always remain, but it is a part of their history that Artie cannot truly relate to. His interpretations, as he views them, are inadequate renderings of horror he will never know. Due to this view on the Holocaust, and his parents’ life experience Artie continually feels inept and disconnected from his family. His is plagued by inadequacy in his work, compared to his ghost-brother, and in his comparative life accomplishments in relation to the survival of his parents. Artie attempts to understand the event, the history, that has shaped his life, but this understanding may be something out of his reach.
While Art sits at his drawing board, a pile of emaciated Jewish bodies lies below him, seemingly unnoticed while reporters and businessmen climb over them (II.41). These bodies represent the grave nature of Art’s subject matter, the millions of dead Jews demanding that their story be told accurately, that their murderers’ atrocity not be trivialized. And at first glance, as we see roughly drawn, animal versions of soldiers fighting in one of the most terrible wars in history, it may appear as though Art’s book epitomizes this trivialization. But as we delve deeper into his world, we soon discover the rich depth that his medium provides in its opportunity for vivid metaphor and enlightening perspective.Maus chronicles not only the harrowing story of Vladek’s survival, but also the story of Artie’s coming to terms with his father’s experiences. These two worlds and the cultural contexts associated with them are constantly juxtaposed as the narrative seamlessly alternates between them, the characters and background instantly providing the context for any given panel. For example, inserted into the myriad of examples of how Vladek was a victim of anti-Semitic Nazi treatment is a scene in which we learn that he himself is just as racist toward black people, or “shvartsers,” as he calls them, as the Nazis were toward him (II.98-100). Vladek doesn’t even believe it makes sense to compare blacks and Jews. This stark contrast between what we read and what we would at first expect exists because the two stories are so interwoven; we can’t help but compare Vladek and the Nazis, and the similarities we find are disturbing.Art’s choice to include without modification his previous work, Prisoner on the Hell Planet, is an interesting one (I.100-103). The brief segment is chronologically halfway between the two main narratives, and it helps to tie them together. We gain an idea of how the Holocaust affected Art’s parents and how they in turn affected him, their emotional instability mixing up his emotions so that he ends up blaming them, the Holocaust, and everything else that enters his mind. By including the main autobiographical narrative, we can glimpse both Art’s difficulty in understanding his parent’s experiences as well as his father’s difficulty in understanding that his son is living in a new era, one far removed from the Holocaust. We can take the familiar place of Art and, like him, see his father’s story through his father’s eyes.Some memories are so important to us, so fiercely horrifying or intensely pleasant, that the sight becomes burned into our mind, every minute detail of the scene unforgettably captured. No representation, be it words, a picture, or a movie, can do these moments the justice they deserve, but Art’s expressive drawings come close. We get a glimpse of what it might have been like for Vladek, looking down on the burning bodies, watching the gasoline and human fat being poured to accelerate the blaze (II.72). Art depicts these intense memories of Vladek’s experience with subtly different drawings, using heavy lines and dark, intense shading so that the emotion bleeds off the page. There are no speech bubbles to represent a passage of time; the memory is condensed to a single instant, frozen, captured on the page just as it was captured in Vladek’s memory. These evocative panels transport us directly into Vladek’s point of view, and they could never exist in any other medium.The comic form also allows Spiegelman to utilize symbols to express mood and feeling. When Vladek and Anja leave the ghetto and begin walking to Sosnowiec, they feel lost, not knowing what will come next as they search for some place to stay and hide (I.125). Art encapsulates this feeling of nervous suspense with a casual inclusion of swastika-shaped crossroads, and this subtle symbolism immediately conveys a torrent of information. Even though they are near their home, they feel as though they are in a foreign world. They realize they have no choice but to walk the Nazi path, knowing they could run into trouble at any moment. And what looks to be a crematorium in the background suggests that, if they chose the wrong path, they will end up like their many relatives and friends, snuffed out by the Nazis. All this information and emotion is communicated through the powerful illustration of a single panel, a testament to the suitability of the comic medium for Art’s subject matter.One of the most apparent instances of symbolism in Maus is the animal-headed characters. Anthropomorphic animals are, of course, nothing new to the world of comics; we don’t think twice about the absurdity of talking rodents and we easily accept the almost cliché relationship between cats and mice that we find in Maus. But unlike Tom and Jerry, whose roles as animals are portrayed only literally, Art’s animal heads are used to represent the stereotypes associated with the different groups in the social arena of the time. The Germans are represented by cats, instinctive hunters of Jewish mice, who in turn are seen as as vermin to be exterminated; this association of mice with Jews may be based on the German anti-Semitic propaganda film, The Eternal Jew, in which a pack of rats emerging from a sewer is juxtaposed with Jews in a crowded street of a Polish ghetto1. The mouse metaphor also captures the resourcefulness and scavenging nature of mice as well as their inability to ever be wiped out entirely. And just as cats don’t view mice as bitter enemies so much as instinctive food, many Germans were not fully conscious of their antagonism toward Jews, instead simply swallowing propaganda and obeying orders.The separation of characters into distinct species may seem at first to be trivializing and unnecessary, but it does effectively capture the stark stratification that existed during the World War II era. Adolf Hitler’s quote, “the Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human,” epitomizes the viewpoint held by many Nazis who truly viewed the Jews as a separate species. At one point, a mouse claims that he is in fact German and should be relieved from the harsh treatment given to the Jews. Spiegelman drew the character twice, once as a mouse and once as a cat; to the Germans, there was no middle ground, and their identification of the man as a Jew ensured his untimely death (II.50).Yet individual characters are given the choice of living up to or breaking away from those stereotypes. We see Jewish police forcefully sending Vladek’s grandparents – fellow mice – to Auschwitz to be killed with millions of other Jews (II.87). We hear of a German officer’s girlfriend convincing him to spare hundreds of Jews (II.108). And we meet both a Pole who informs the Gestapo of hiding Jews (I.113) as well a Pole who accepts Jews into her household to hide them from Nazi patrols (I.141). What shines through is not how each character conforms to the stereotypes associated with their species, but how, fundamentally, there is no difference between mice, cats and pigs; how, truly, there are both cruel and compassionate, ruthless and merciful, malicious and benevolent members of every nationality, every ethnicity, every religion.Characters in Maus are frequently shown to wear masks representing a confusion of identity, intentional or otherwise. In Maus I, these masks are visible when characters pretend to be of another species, such as when Vladek identifies himself as a Pole to a train man so that he might let him board in secret (I.64). The ease by which Vladek can assume the part of another race, represented by the donning of a simple mask, demonstrates how quickly the supposed differences between species melt away when the racial divide is eliminated.In Maus II, these masks take on a more complicated role during the meta-narrative at the beginning of chapter two, where several characters, including Art himself, are seen as humans sporting only masks instead of actual animal heads. The temporary lapse of metaphor allows us to understand that the identity provided by our race and nationality – our species – is really just a mask that we wear. That underneath our masks, we’re all just people.By assigning specific animals to broad groups of diverse people, Art highlights the absurdity of making such generalizations. Just as Art can’t decide what animal his wife should be drawn as – a mouse, a frog, or something else entirely? (II.11) – so too is it senseless to attempt, like Hitler, to assign simple categorizations to the deep, complex psyche that makes us human. It is the very artificiality of Art’s metaphor that allows him to so evocatively capture the reality of the Holocaust.This personal touch, this intimacy, is what makes Maus so powerful. We can not only see but experience the toll Hitler took on Vladek, on his family, and on the world. We can experience, through Art’s brilliant metaphor, the social mindset of the war’s participants. And by the time we finish the last page, we have experienced more than just what Vladek survived. We have experienced what it was to have survived it.
An element of tension runs through both volumes of Art Spiegelman’s Maus. The two narratives running parallel to each other throughout Maus, namely those of Art and his father Vladek, converge at the end of volume two in a shaky synthesis. The two narratives, do not, however, totally reconcile so well with each other so as to go from thesis to antithesis to synthesis. The last few panels of Maus reveal, instead, that biography and history are messy and full of conflict, and that no amount of “leaving the past behind” can erase some of the effects that the one narrative has on the other. Art, while recounting the past of his father, also punctuates the story by revealing the interviewing process that took place with he and his father in Rego Park and Florida. In Vladek’s reminiscing, we get the image of a person who is resourceful, clever, loving and who possesses a strong survivalist streak. In the portion of the comic where “Art” the character is involved, we see a weakened, paranoid, miserly, stubborn and fairly racist old man: “It’s not even to compare the shvarsters to the Jews!” (Spiegelman, 99). Throughout the portion where Art speaks as a character, he notes the striking difference between the man he knows as his father and the man he’s writing about in his comic book: “I can’t make sense out of my relationship with my father…how am I supposed to make any sense out of Auschwitz?”(Spiegelman, 14). Art wants to believe that Vladek was made into what he is during the war, despite characters like Mala telling him that, in all likelihood, the war at best brought something out that was already in him: “All our friends went through the camps. Nobody is like him!” (Spiegelman, 131). To this extent, the two narratives compliment elements of each other: the “past” narrative sheds light on some of the possible consequences of the “present” narrative. On the other hand, they also disagree with each other: why would Vladek generalize black people when his own people were treated in such a similar manner? As well, is his stinginess a trait acquired in the camps or was it a character flaw that served him well in that particular situation? The two narratives, therefore, stand not only as thesis and antithesis, but also generate a series of theses, antitheses and syntheses in an almost infinite regress. Throughout the comic, the reader is reminded that the past always haunts the present. Vladek tries burning his late wife’s, Anja’s, journals about the camps, and reveals later that he tried to forget everything and live the remainder of his days in peace: “All such things of the war, I tried to put out of my mind once and for all…until you rebuild me all this from your questions.” (Spiegelman, 98). However, this was not to be, as the son he spawned post-WWII would come back with eager questions. This is an example of the present questioning the past, and inquiring into it in order to understand itself. The present is informed by its past, and relies on it in order to exist. The fallout of this is that the past can’t escape itself, and is forever enshrined in the things and people it ultimately produces. The present then constantly seeks to identify itself through antecedents. Again, this is where the infinite loop of thesis, antithesis and synthesis come into play. The most glaring example of this resides in the last few panels of Maus, where Vladek, uttering his apparent last words, lies down to sleep, and calls his son Art by the name of his deceased son, Richiev: “I’m tired from talking Richiev, and it’s enough stories for now…” (Spiegelman, 136). The comic ends on that note, suggesting by an image of a tombstone that Vladek died not long thereafter. Vladek had lost his first son in the war, and afterward had another son: Art. The deceased son is a symbol of the thesis of Vladek’s old, dead life, and Art acts as a symbol for the antithesis which is his new one: “The photo [of Richiev] never threw tantrums or got into any kind of trouble…It was an ideal kid and I was pain in the ass. I couldn’t compete.” (Spiegelman, 15). In the end, Art and Richiev converge on each other in a synthesis which says that there was something never reconciled in Vladek’s biography before Art was conceived. Vladek’s dying leaves Art in an infinite loop of questioning and conflict. He is left to forever invoke the past with no one to guide him through it. The more the two narratives bump into each other in this story, the messier the story becomes, as it leads Art Spiegelman to more and more questions without answers. Maus acts not only as another testimony of the horrors of the Holocaust, but as a commentary about what effect the past and its trauma have on everything that comes thereafter. The legacy of something and the thing itself are inextricably linked, and no amount of forgetting can undo that connection or provide a satisfying level of closure. 1. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. Vol. 1. N.p.: Apex Novelties, 1972. 2 vols. Print. Spiegelman, Art. 2. Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. Vol. 2. N.p.: Pantheon Books, 1991. 2 vols. Print.
In Maus, Art Spiegelman produces what can be seen as a reaction to the Holocaust and its complicated aftermath. It is a graphic representation of the various horrors of the Holocaust and he chooses to make his characters anthropomorphic. One may argue that in an individual story that is as hard hitting as Vladek’s, the use of the same animal caricature-like heads to denote various races serves to trivialize the story. However, Spiegelman’s use of anthropomorphic characters serves a number of important purposes that, it may be argued, justify his technique and counterbalance the negative viewpoints that can be expressed against it. It must be kept in mind that Spiegelman is not simply dealing with the Holocaust in an academic, somewhat detached and objective manner. He is dealing with the very personal reality of the Holocaust survival story of his father and mother and simultaneously his own often ambivalent feelings about them. Everything about his life, it may be argued, has in some way been essentially touched by the Holocaust because his parents both went through it. Thus, Spiegelman is bound to feel very strongly about the subject matter involved. In the “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” we see that these strong feelings are portrayed in a very hard hitting and disturbing manner. This is something that Spiegelman has worked on earlier to express his feelings about his mother’s death, and one gets the feeling that this technique has not been particularly successful as far as Spiegelman is concerned. In using the animal faces, he is removing the starkness of the horror, and provides both himself and the readers with a space to explore the story without getting too emotionally disturbed. For people who have not survived the Holocaust, it is difficult to imagine the kind of horrors that were inflicted upon people in the concentration camps, so Spiegelman has made the story telling possible by creating a detachment and a humor to a very dark and tragic incident. There are also several other important reasons why Spiegelman’s technique is justified. In giving the Jews mice heads, he is making a sarcastic statement about the treatment of the Jews as vermin by the Nazis. It also refers to the resilience of mice as a whole, which can be seen as a veiled compliment to the community for surviving the Holocaust. It can be argued that instead of enforcing racial stereotypes, Spiegelman actually satirizes them and ultimately influences the readers to question them. In deliberately playing up racial stereotypes, for example in the portrayal of the French as frogs, he is actually pointing out the futility and hollowness of these stereotypes. In making his protagonists look all the same, Spiegelman is communicating to the audience that although this particular survivor’s story is of Vladek’s, there are many more similar stories of Holocaust victims and survivors that have never been told. Thus, even as he highlights Vladek and Anja’s individual plight, he also pays homage to the millions whose stories he cannot possibly tell individually. Hence, while it is a personal memoir, it becomes at the same time removed from its subject and manages to encompass the enormity of the Holocaust.Oftentimes in Maus the idea of racial identity becomes a confusing one. This is because while at one level race and ethnicity seems to be so deeply rooted that one cannot escape it without escaping the book altogether, at another level it seems like it is more subjective. For example, the various identities ascribed to the different races never change in the novel. All the Germans are cats, the Poles are pigs, and so on. From this standpoint there is no escaping the racial identity of every character in the novel. On the other hand, certain characters are more flexible than that and can be less easily categorized. Art himself is an excellent example of this ambiguity. Although he has a European Jewish heritage, he identifies himself as an American. However, he acknowledges the effect of his racial heritage on his present personality. Here, his race is mutable and stands as a matter of perception. Even Francoise’s racial identity is complicated. Although she is French, she is still depicted as a mouse because she is Jewish. One wonders in this scenario if she had not been the positive character that she remains in the Art’s life – for example, if she had been a French woman who he did not know or a French woman with Nazi leanings or even a French woman who identified herself as American – then what would her ascribed identity have been. She could easily have been a frog, a dog or even a cat. This racial confusion is also present in the pages where Spiegelman has drawn the characters in such a manner that it is apparent that they are wearing masks. This may be interpreted as Spiegelman’s way of saying that external characteristics that help to identify race actual hide more than they reveal, that people’s identities – racial or otherwise – are too complex to classify into separate boxes, so to speak and also that race itself is ultimately farcical. With the ambiguity in Art and Francoise’s racial identities, we thus identify a racial complication that may be more applicable to the newer generation than the older. This complication is because of various heritages coming together and also migration. However, this phenomenon is by no means limited to only the younger generation, even though it might be more widespread there. The character of the Polish nanny might be recalled, the one who was kind to Art and Anja, lending her quite a different aura in the eyes of the audience as opposed to the other Poles seen in the graphic novel. Thus, Spiegelman’s various explorations of racial identity, especially of his own family’s, reveal his personal view of race as a farce while at the same time affirming the impact of the racial heritage on his own identity as well as that of those around him.
Through the use of modulating points of view, Art Spiegelman pieces several stories into one in order to portray his father Vladek’s Holocaust story as well as his experiences with Vladek as he wrote the book. The conflict between Art and his father is one major theme of Maus which may be analyzed in terms of Vladek’s belittlement of Art, Vladek’s dissatisfaction with Art’s occupation, and Vladek’s frugality.In the first several pages of the graphic memoir, Art presents a comic which, from the start, demonstrates a tension in the paternal bond between his father and himself. When young Art’s skate breaks and his friends abandon him, he walks sullenly to where his father is working in the garage, seeking paternal love. When Art tells his father about his friends skating off without him, his father replies, “Friends? Your friends?… If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week… Then you could see what it is, friends!” (6). While it is true that compared with the vast atrocities Vladek has experienced Art’s problem is of minor consequence, his reaction is not suited well as a response to a young child’s plea for help. The belittlement Art felt on that occasion lasted beyond his early childhood into adulthood. When Vladek upsets a bottle of pills during one of many interviews with his son, he blames it on Art. Art is obviously frustrated by this but he offers to help pick up and recount the scattered pills. At this Vladek says, “You don’t know counting pills” (30). It seems that Vladek trusts only himself to care for himself. While this is unfortunate, it is nonetheless sensible because during the most trying time of his life he could count only on himself for survival. As he told Art, “It was everybody to take care of himself!” (114). Janina, Vladek’s first son’s governess, had always offered to help the endangered Spiegelmans. However, even she abandoned them as she found her own life put in harm’s way by their presence on her doorstep . Because he is accustomed to doing things in his own way, Vladek sees only fault and immaturity in his son’s actions. From being forced to finish everything on his plate to being upbraided for dropping cigarette ashes on the carpet, Art’s father constantly treats him as a child.Unfortunately for Art, Vladek’s dissatisfaction with him extends also to his chosen occupation. Art tells Mala, “He never reads comics… He doesn’t even look at my work when I stick it under his nose” (104). A slightly more humorous example of his lack of understanding of Art’s career occurs when he identifies him with Walt Disney, a well-known child’s cartoonist. To identify the writer of Maus, a deep and moving piece of scholarly literature, with Walt Disney, the artist behind countless low-brow cartoons, is laughable but also unfortunate if the association is made by the author’s father. The conditions causing Vladek’s lack of appreciation for comics is brought to light when he tells Art, “Better you should spend your time to make drawings what will bring you some money” (12). It may be true that, prior to the publication of Maus, Art did not make as much money as his father would have liked. However, making comics is what satisfied him so it is what he did. Having been born during the baby boom, Art is associated with a group of people that grew up in relative economic comfort and rebelled against the practical ways of its parents. The parents of the baby boom, survivors of the worldwide depression preceding the war as well as the war itself, saw more value in money and a pragmatic way of life. Thus it is not only Vladek and Art that lived in both separate worlds and the same house; instead, it must be considered a widespread phenomenon. Vladek’s appreciation for money can be further explained by his war-time experiences. Money and its clever usage is what allowed Vladek to survive the war. Throughout the story one sees a constant recurrence of financial concerns and it seems as if all other matters fade when it comes to surviving a greedy enemy. In order to be bailed out of prison he has to “make signs to show [he can] pay” (114). Valuables are traded throughout his experience in exchange for food, a hiding place, or a way out of arrest. On one occasion his black market business associate and Polish hiding place hostess Mrs. Motonowa claims to have no bread when Vladek cannot put enough money together to buy any. Despite a long history of good credit, Mrs. Motonowa refuses his credit because money is more important than friends. Vladek is not offended by this because he understands the nature of the time. The temporary role reversal of friends and money is permanent for Vladek, as evidenced by his second wife’s exclamation, “He’s more attached to things than to people!” (93). When Art pays seventy-five dollars for a tape recorder he is criticized for spending forty more than he should have (73). This annoys Art, as does the collection his father keeps of every material belonging he has ever acquired. An interesting example of this takes place when he picks up a piece of telephone wire from the road and keeps it because of its potential good use (116). This habit, while strange to all but the most neurotic of individuals, serves Vladek well during the war as we find that he has kept valuables such as a fourteen karat cigarette case and a similar lady’s powder case in a safe box at the bank since shortly after the war. He attempts to place these items in Art’s care in order to keep them away from his wife, Mala, of whom he is suspicious. His suspicion, like his frugality, was warranted during the Holocaust. As he tells Art there was “no such thing as families” during the time because, if it meant survival, one would not hesitate to steal from or sell out his closest relatives (114). Vladek became caught up in this value system not because of immorality, but because of survival. This cannot be deemed immoral because it is a basic human instinct that drives him to the placement of material possessions above his family.The persona of Vladek is a complex one. When one sees his poor parenting of Art it causes the reader to dislike him, but after realizing what he goes through in his time it becomes apparent that all of his negative words and actions are easily explained. He is merely a product of his environment and, unfortunately, the individualistic determination, pragmatism, and frugality that saves his life in the 40s makes it difficult to have a satisfactory relationship with his son in the 70s.
Today, most Americans can only imagine what the horrors of the Holocaust must have been like – and, to be frank, they are probably very glad that they have no personal experiences to draw on. However, the Holocaust, and other catastrophic events in history, must be remembered. Even as Americans who live nowhere near the places that were ravaged by destruction and genocide, we must attempt to understand the Holocaust, because even events as horrific as the genocide of Jews in Europe are a part of history – and history tends to repeat itself. Many authors of Holocaust literature seem to believe that awareness equals prevention. Both words and images are a vital component of remembrance, as exemplified by allegorical Holocaust literature such as that created by authors Art Spiegelman and Eve Bunting. Art Spiegelman, in his Maus books, and Eve Bunting, author of the children’s book Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust, show us that words and images are both essential in representations of the Holocaust. The use of an allegory in which animals symbolize people, when paired with careful style and pattern choices for illustrations, is highly effective in conveying the message that racism and division can lead, quite simply, to “terrible things”. Maus is an unusual account of the Holocaust – it is strikingly different from most Holocaust literature targeted at adults, yet Spiegelman’s work has attracted an amazing number of readers of all ages. In fact, Maus won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, and has proven to be a staple in many college classrooms. In writing and illustrating Maus, Art Spielgelman took on the difficult task of accurately representing his father’s story, as well as depicting the things that Vladek told him in a way that the public could understand and appreciate. Interestingly, he chose to represent people in Maus as animals, with each race portrayed as a different animal. In this allegory, the Jews are depicted as mice, the Germans are cats, the Poles are pigs, and when Americans are introduced in Maus II, they are dogs. Besides creating an obvious division between some of the key groups in the Holocaust, readers can read more deeply into Spiegelman’s choice of animal for each race. The cat and mouse idea behind the portrayal of the Germans and the Jews is a fairly obvious one. Speigelman’s choice to draw the Poles as pigs, however, could be taken in several ways: perhaps they are depicted as pigs because they stand by and do nothing while the Jews are taken away, or perhaps the pig symbolizes the Poles’ greed and selfishness when they took over Jewish homes and businesses after the Jews were evacuated from Polish towns. Either way, Speigelman’s depiction of these four races pushes readers to recognize the racial differences, hatred, and segregation that occurred during the Holocaust, and his allegory proves to be a poignant one. Throughout Maus and Maus II, Speigelman uses metaphors to spotlight the division between races in Europe at the time of the Holocaust. His two volumes follow Vladek’s story from a time when he was a normal citizen of Poland, to a time when Jews, Poles, and Germans each had their distinctive places in society, and finally to a time when Jews were slaughtered simply for the fact that they were Jewish. Speigelman’s depiction of Jews as mice helps readers who may know little about such extreme racism to understand that the differences in appearance, dialect, and the like were the primary signs that the Nazis used to direct their hatred. In the Holocaust all of the European races were human; similarly, in Maus all of the characters are animals, yet it is the subtle differences between them that cause the death of millions. When Vladek must take his wife Anja to the sanitarium, Speigelman illustrates a perfect world in which all animals can live in harmony. Though it is ironic that everyone is only at peace when they are in a sanitarium, this is the only time in his two volumes that Speigelman brings all the different kinds of animals together. Here, there are mice, pigs, cats, and dogs, as well as rabbits, horses, giraffes, goats, and frogs. Once they leave the sanitarium and enter the “real” world again, however, racism rears its head and they separate once again. It is interesting that Speigelman chooses to send the message that only in a completely contrived, unnatural situation such as a “health resort” can different races be truly at peace, but nonetheless, this adds to the strength of his allegory. Bunting’s Terrible Things also uses animals to symbolize groups that were persecuted during the Holocaust. She and illustrator Stephen Gammell create a forest filled with rabbits, squirrels, fish, birds, frogs, and porcupines. All of the animals live together peacefully until the Terrible Things come to the forest and wreak havoc on nature’s harmony. The Terrible Things are not represented as animals, as the Nazis are in Maus, but rather as ethereal, haunting shadows that blot out the sun. The first time the Terrible Things come to visit, they say, “We have come for every creature with feathers on its back.” All of the animals of the forest say, “We don’t have feathers” – except, of course, for the birds, who are then taken away. Upon each return, the Terrible Things take away another type of animal, while the ones who do not meet the criteria look the other way, glad that they are able to stay in the clearing. The Terrible Things continue to come back, however, until they have taken away all the animals except for the white rabbits. Little Rabbit is afraid and wants to move, but Big Rabbit counters, “Why should we move? This has always been our home. And the Terrible Things won’t come back. We are the White Rabbits. It couldn’t happen to us.” Then, of course, it does: the white rabbits are taken away, all except for Little Rabbit who is small enough to hide in the rocks. In the end, Little Rabbit realizes that, “If only we creatures had stuck together, it could have been different.” Speigelman’s metaphor for racism is echoed in Terrible Things, and here it is especially effective in teaching young children that no matter how different people are, bad things can happen to anyone. The book’s message is that it is important to stick together and try to help each other rather than ignore each others’ suffering. Terrible Things differs from Maus, however, in that each race is not associated with a specific animal. Also, the Nazis, or the Terrible Things, are not represented as animals, but rather as ominous clouds lurking over the forest. Terrible Things is more abstract than Maus, in that the animals do not represent particular groups (most likely because such references would most likely be lost on children, the intended audience); here, the allegory here focuses on obvious differences that children can see (feathers, color, ability to swim, etc.). Each group of forest animals has distinct differences, and each time the Terrible Things come to take some of them away, the animals that remain are very glad that it is not their turn. Though this story may be disturbing to younger children, it is effective at alerting readers that differences between people should not cause such division that they allow terrible things to happen. As Bunting states as a sort of preface to Terrible Things, “In Europe, during World War II, many people looked the other way while terrible things happened. They pretended not to know that their neighbors were being taken away and locked in concentration camps. They pretended not to hear their cries for help. The Nazis killed millions of Jews and others in the Holocaust. If everyone had stood together at the first sign of evil, would this have happened?” Bunting invites children and adults alike to think about the consequences of their own actions and prejudices, and Gammell’s illustrations throughout Terrible Things inspire the same discomfort and sadness in children that Speigelman’s images of hatred and death in Maus inspire in adults. So, image paired with word, we see here, can make a big impact. Images can communicate things that even words cannot, and are especially relevant in the context of Holocaust literature. In representing the Holocaust through images, it is important to consider factors such as style, color, and placement. As an illustrator one must consider the effect that the illustrations will have on the viewer, and both Spiegelman and Gammell made choices that enhance comprehension in the reader and convey a clear message. Both illustrators portray their subjects in simple black and white, and both make the pictures take over each page in such a way that they become the main focus of the books. The use of black and white is convincing for depictions of the Holocaust, even when animals are the subject, because any real photographs that readers may have seen from the era would have been black and white. Black and white is often used to convey the gravity of a situation, as well, and using these shades to illustrate Maus and Terrible Things allows Speigelman and Gammell to create serious, somber messages about the possible consequences of hatred. Also, images take center stage in these books presumably because the story behind Holocaust is really about the people, about the victims, and about what happened to them, rather than merely an account of the number of dead bodies or a history of how Hitler came to acquire such power. With all their similarities, however, there are some marked differences between the two illustrators’ styles. While Spiegelman uses thick black lines and a comic book format, Gammell uses pencil drawings and a more realistic style. Both illustrators’ images are full of impact, though, because the pictures command such a power and presence on the page. The lack of color draws the reader to the image and begs them to analyze what they are seeing. For example, Gammell includes an image of a frightened squirrel who is about to be captured by the Terrible Things. Children reading this book will immediately notice the squirrel’s expression of fear because Gammell places the detailed creature so carefully on the page. In Maus II, likewise, Speigelman captures the expressions of burning bodies in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, and his use of bold lines captivates, horrifies, and consumes the reader. Also, in each book, the animal allegory adds to the impact of the pictures because for very young children who may not be able to handle images of real bodies, depictions of animals can serve as a gateway to understanding the true story of the Holocaust. Seeing these illustrations may be quite upsetting to children, and when they learn later that these things happened to humans, they will be able to assimilate the feelings they had when reading Terrible Things into what they are learning about real victims. Also, the allegory works to impact adult readers of Maus when they see Speigelman’s drawings because the characters do clearly represent actual humans. In the end, Maus and Terrible Things leave readers feeling something powerful. Whether it is sadness, shock, or a determination to never again ignore the pain of others, Speigelman and Bunting have both created very poignant works. Using both words and images, these authors have done something that many Holocaust writers have not – they have connected the words that many have heard about the Holocaust with images that make sense to their intended audience.
In any artistic work, aesthetic style is a crucial aid to the viewer’s understanding of the piece as a whole. Art Spiegelman’s remarkable publication Maus breaks the conventional barriers of the past between comics and what were then considered to be serious novels. As a graphic novel about a horrific atrocity, Maus is the first work of its kind. Through the style of his drawings, Spiegelman is able to use illustration to aid in the telling of a story. Each individually crafted panel is detailed enough to be significant alone; together, they create a rich tapestry of images which portray a powerful story without compromising the work’s literary integrity. Page 87 of Maus is an ideal example of Spiegelman’s combination of thoughtful detail and underlying meaning in his drawings.In panels 2, 3, 6 and 7 of page 87, Vladek and Artie are only shown as silhouettes. This might be taken to represent a connection with Vladek’s past. As Adolf Hitler is quoted to have said, “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human,” Jews were not viewed as worthwhile individuals. As the camps and gas chambers filled, each Jew became only a number, if even that. As the Jews were faceless then, Vladek is depicted as being faceless in the present.Yet, it is noteworthy that Vladek’s glasses are still visible against his dark silhouette. Glasses stereotypically represent a person’s thought and intellect, and in these panels, spectacles imply a hint of Vladek’s human aptitude. The contrast between the glasses and the silhouette is an ironic detail beyond what the initial glance might discern. Thoughtful details like these that appear throughout Maus are significant in their ability to lend a sense of humanity to an inhumanly cruel tale. Almost six million Jews were massacred during the Holocaust; although many works have been written about and around the events of the Second World War, Spiegelman, through the use of image, attempts through new venues to help the reader relate. In Maus, the people – often victims of history – are revived, transformed and metamorphosed into hand-drawn characters. Although these comics, because they are inherently two-dimensional, cannot do complete justice to multi-dimensional human beings, they do not deviate far from the truth.Perhaps for entertainment value, or to an extent, to alleviate the grim nature of his novel, Spiegelman adds a caricature-like quality to the depiction of his characters, particularly Vladek, who becomes the stereotypical Miserly Jew. This almost laughable quality is most obvious in the novel when Vladek, who – even in his advanced age – continues to carry home small knickknacks and bits he finds along the street, refuses to part with a piece of wire he discovers while strolling with his son. Vladek is additionally depicted as being petty and unforgiving, harsh in speech and uncouth in manner, and somewhat a bigot. However, it is ironically also these personality flaws that cause his rodent-faced character to appear more real, more “human.” As the reader comes to silently despise Vladek for his numerous shortcomings, he becomes increasingly attached to the character on an unconscious level. This unconscious concern for the character later translates into compassion and sympathy, and gradually the thoughtful development of Maus’s characters causes us to almost forget that even Vladek has a rodent tail. In the telling of the story, as Jews are mice, not inherently harmful but reputed pests requiring riddance, Nazis are given cat faces, somewhat menacing, but strangely more physically resembling humans than those of their rodent counterparts.As the reader becomes drawn deeper into the tale and closer to the characters, drama within the plot takes on increased effect. By page 87, the reader has already witnessed the setting of the scene for the entrance of concentration camps into the story. On page 86, the suspense and shock build; the individual panels are larger in size than those of previous pages, particularly than the noticeably smaller frames of page 85. It is worthy to note that in most of the book’s pages, especially those preceding pages 86 and 87, the mice are not depicted to have visible eyebrows. However, on 86, the expressions of anxiety and fear created by the shape of the mice’s suddenly present eyebrows dominate the page. This evokes an air of anticipation in the reader, which carries over into the next page. Here, on page 87, as if finally reaching a crescendo, the panels in which Vladek recalls the past to Artie show the two figures as silhouettes only. Drama becomes heightened; it is comparable to the effect created when the face of a camp side storyteller is illuminated with the single beam of a flashlight. These silhouette panels could even be called negatives, similar to photo negatives, as the color of the subjects and backgrounds are reversed. In film, this type of inverse of light and dark lends a feeling of apprehension, foreshadowing doom of some kind. Despite the intense drama of the page, it is appropriate – this is the first time in Maus that Vladek and his family are directly affected by the events at Auschwitz.Although the story of the Holocaust has been told countless times, and in the present day, the occurrences at concentration camps have all been exposed, it is with such subtle details that Spiegelman is able to persuade the reader into shock when Maus characters begin to be exterminated. The reader is forced to rely increasingly on the posture and gesticulations of the figures, Valdek’s in particular, and on the dialogue. Especially on page 87, many words are printed in bold lettering. This deviates from previous pages, which have few or no bolded words. Again, these small, easily dismissible coincidences can be proven to be in actuality not coincidences at all, but carefully planned components of the graphic novel.Maus is a refreshing transgression from the norm. As art, it is impressive in its magnitude; as literature, it propels story telling to new venues. Art Spiegelman has proven that not only can two media of expression be combined successfully; they can be united without detriment to either artistic or literary integrity. He is most commendable, however, not for that which readers notice, but for that which they easily overlook – the subtle yet powerful details that permeate his work, leaving readers breathless without them realizing exactly why.
Art Spiegelman’s ‘The Complete Maus’ explores the devastating impact of the Holocaust on survivors and their families. Through the lens of his father Vladek Spiegelman’s past experiences and their present day relationship, Spiegelman highlights the obsessive behaviour and depression that splinter the lives of Holocaust survivors. By including a remarkably candid self-portrayal, Spiegelman additionally suggests that the children of those who endured the Holocaust are haunted by its impact, left alienated from their parents and experiencing survivor’s guilt. Including an element of hope, Vladek and Art’s complex post-holocaust relationship reveals the capacity for stories to become vessels of healing, which strengthen the bonds between survivors and their loved ones, alleviating their suffering.
Through ‘The Complete Maus’ Spiegelman demonstrates that survivors of the Holocaust such as Vladek are left mentally and emotionally damaged as a result of their experiences. Through Art’s visits to his father Vladek, set in the 1970s and 1980s, Spiegelman reveals the harmful consequences of Vladek’s wartime ordeal on his new life in post-war America. Vladek describes having been forced to continually rely on his wits and pragmatism for survival in the Holocaust, such as through saving cigarettes to trade for food while a POW, trading on the black market while in Sosnowiec and exchanging a piece of bread for a spare lice-free shirt, in order to ensure he received a daily meal ration only given to the clean prisoners of Dachau. This need to be constantly resourceful during the Holocaust overwhelms other less material approaches to life in its aftermath, leaving Mala and Art to accuse Vladek of being “cheap” and “more attached to things than people!” Vladek’s frugality, extreme to the point of being neurotic, is exemplified by his hoarding of items that range from pieces of telephone wire he picks up on the street, to nails, as well as his insistence on constantly leaving the gas burner running during Art’s stay with him in the Catskills in order to save on matches. Spiegelman emphasizes the panic Vladek feels when he sees Art simply lighting a match, by drawing the lightning fast movement of his head as he turns to Art to admonish him. Vladek’s now irrational personality is also shown through his often obsessive behavior, such as his insistence on finding a mistake of “less than a buck” in Art and Francoise’s calculation of his bank balance, so that it is exactly “so as on the statement.” Vladek’s intensity is further emphasized by his furious riding of his ‘exercycle’, recurrently depicted by Spiegelman as an activity that causes him exhaustion. By juxtaposing the tenacious, confident and courageous Vladek of the 1930s and 1940s with the depiction of his now mentally frail father, Spiegelman exposes the long term implications of the trauma of the Holocaust.
Spiegelman additionally conveys that those who endure the Holocaust experience perpetual depression in their lives following the ordeal. Vladek describes how Anja was “nervous”, even after the Holocaust and through Spiegelman’s inclusion of ‘Prisoner on the Hell Planet’, the reader learns that Anja was eventually driven to commit suicide, leaving no note. Spiegelman highlights the key role of the Holocaust in her depression, with the bolded words “Hitler did it!” and “Menopausal depression” separating confronting images of Anja’s body in the bath and a pile of emaciated corpses, surrounded by Swastikas. Spiegelman also draws the reader’s attention to his mother’s loneliness following the deaths of almost all her family in the Holocaust, by including the depiction of her “tightening the umbilical cord” to desperately ask young Artie if he loves her. Vladek articulates the impact of the loss of Anja’s last remaining family member, her brother Herman who died in a hit and run accident in 1964, describing how his death caused Anja to “also die a little.” Furthermore, Spiegelman emphasizes the depression Vladek suffers as a result of the horrors he and Anja lived through in WWII. As Vladek himself tells Art and the reader, “it can’t be everything okay!” with Vladek’s “life now”. In the ‘Prisoner on the Hell Planet” cartoon, Spiegelman depicts his father’s grief following Anja’s suicide. Vladek is drawn by Spiegelman as a grotesquely skeletal figure, who had “completely fallen apart.” This depiction conveys the inward ‘death’ Vladek suffers as a result of Anja’s suicide, which left him without his beloved wife and the one person who could completely understand and empathize with his Holocaust experiences. Spiegelman conveys that the loss of Anja undermined Vladek’s later relationship with Mala, leaving him resentful of his second wife, simply as she could never be Anja. Mala complains Vladek has a “shrine” of photos of Anja on his desk, which Spiegelman corroborates by including Anja’s photo in several panels depicting Art and Vladek’s conversations, suggesting that Vladek is still grieving his first wife, unable to move forward with Mala. Vladek’s poor treatment of Mala also makes her life miserable and she describes feeling as if she’s “in prison!” to Art. By illustrating the inescapable depression experienced by both his parents and its negative impact on Mala, Spiegelman suggests unhappiness is an inevitable reality for Holocaust survivors.
In addition to highlighting the prolonged suffering of holocaust survivors, Spiegelman suggests that the impact of the Holocaust is intergenerational, as the children of survivors also suffer. Through a remarkably candid self-portrayal, Spiegelman reveals the second hand trauma he endured during his childhood and his experience of being constantly tied to his parents’ memories of WWII. This is reflected in the very first few pages of the novel, as Vladek denies his son sympathy after he falls over, instead reflecting on the brutal lessons he learned while in Auschwitz. Vladek’s attempt to teach Art what he views as a crucial life lesson – not to count on the kindness of others, exemplifies the negative impact of his Holocaust memories on his son. Spiegelman’s attempt to elicit sympathy from the reader by including this passage highlights his feelings of neglect and need to have his suffering recognized. Without fully revealing the causes of his depression, Spiegelman conveys that as a young man, he suffered mental problems so severe he had a stay in the “state mental hospital.” These issues are evidently compounded by his mother’s suicide, driven by her own depression, which causes Art enormous grief. Drawing himself in prisoner’s garb in the comic “Prisoner on the Hell Planet”, Art describes feeling “murdered” by his mother and “nauseous” with guilt following her death. Through this negative depiction, Spiegelman conveys he was utterly destroyed by his mother’s death and struggling to cope with his emotions. The inclusion of a drawing of himself as a literal prisoner behind bars, reinforces the suggestion that Art felt incarcerated by his parent’s suffering and his own loss. Spiegelman also emphasizes the impact of his father’s holocaust memories and his own research on his life as an adult. Depicting himself creating “Maus II”, Art is surrounded by flies that also hover around a pile of emaciated corpses at his feet. Spiegelman underscores his being haunted by the Holocaust by juxtaposing the revelation that in “May 1987 Francoise and [he] are expecting a baby” with the statistic, “between May 16th 1944 and May 24th 1944, over 100 000 Hungarian Jews were gassed in Auschwitz.” While Art is neither resentful nor self-pitying in these frames, he conveys that his life is forever intertwined with the events of the Holocaust. This is reinforced by Spiegelman’s inclusion of the comment he was getting “eaten alive” by the ‘time flies’ even while holidaying in the Catskills with Vladek and Francoise. Through the intermittent inclusion of the horrors of the Holocaust in the depiction of his life in post-war America, Spiegelman demonstrates that the Holocaust pervades the lives of the children of survivors, as well as the lives of survivors themselves.
While exposing the destructive impact of the Holocaust on survivors and their families, Spiegelman conveys that hope stems from the healing process of sharing these experiences with others. Early in ‘Maus’, Spiegelman highlights his fraught relationship with his father, whom at the start of the novel he hadn’t visited “in almost two years.” Vladek’s experiences of the Holocaust form a seemingly indestructible wall between father and son, leaving Art feeling survivor’s guilt “about having had an easier life than [Vladek and Anja] did”. Art also feels inferior as a result of not sharing Vladek’s extreme experiences of endurance, reflecting “No matter what I accomplish, it doesn’t seem like much compared to surviving Auschwitz”. Having lived through a childhood where his struggles and successes were of little importance, when compared to the magnitude of the Holocaust, Art is at times selfish as an adult and inconsiderate of his father’s suffering. While telling Artie about Richieu, Vladek becomes visibly upset and his story begins to be unclear. However rather than being sympathetic, Artie harshly says “Wait! Please Dad, if you don’t keep your story chronological, I’ll never get it straight”. At this moment Artie shows that he is only concerned with getting the story; his father’s grief is insignificant. However, through the cathartic process of creating ‘The Complete Maus’, Spiegelman demonstrates he is able to better understand and empathize with Vladek, strengthening their relationship. While listening to his conversations with Vladek on tape, Art hears himself yell “Enough! Tell me about Auschwitz!” at his father. Spiegelman depicts himself literally shrinking with shame as he hears himself treating his father so harshly. Furthermore, after listening to Vladek’s tales of extraordinary suffering, such as the gassing of “hundreds of thousands of Hungarians” to which Vladek was “an eyewitness”, Art is able to reflect on his father’s current psyche and realize “in some ways [his father] didn’t survive” the Holocaust. Art’s reflections on his father’s extreme wartime experiences make him a far more sympathetic son, as exemplified by his comment “I’m sorry for snapping at you before” to Vladek, following an argument later in the novel. Art is even able to finally acknowledge that his father’s health should be a greater priority than ‘Maus’, saying to Vladek, “I’m sorry I made you talk so much, Pop.” Spiegelman’s novel ultimately serves as a tribute to Vladek’s triumphs and suffering, as well as the deepened bond between father and son.
Art Spiegelman’s ‘The Complete Maus’ reveals the perpetual trauma endured by generations of Jews following the Holocaust. Highlighting the psychological degradation caused by Vladek’s post-traumatic stress disorder, Spiegelman exposes the long term suffering of Holocaust survivors. This is reinforced through Spiegelman’s brutally honest depiction of the depression faced by both his parents. Moreover, by including himself as a character in ‘Maus,’ Spiegelman depicts the trauma experienced by the children of Holocaust survivors, who are left alienated from their parents and experiencing survivor’s guilt. However, through elements of meta-narrative and the depiction of his evolving relationship with his father, Spiegelman suggests that by sharing Vladek’s stories, the father and son form a stronger, more empathetic relationship.
In general, comic strips and graphic art are given little attention as complete works of literature. Considered to be lacking substance and novelistic qualities, graphic novels are undeservingly lumped into a category that does not account for their quality and influence. With that being said, Art Spiegelman’s MAUS Tales conquers generalizations about graphic novels and in turn, has become an example for demonstrating the ways frames, panels, and faces can produce narrative qualities inaccessible to traditional, non-pictorial novels. Uniquely, MAUS primarily weaves between two separate timelines which allow Spiegelman to tell his story in addition to his father’s. The frame-tale timeline begins in the narrative present with author Art Spiegelman interviewing his father, Vladek, about his experiences during the Holocaust for the project Artie hopes to complete. In the narrative past, Artie recounts the years leading up to the war and follows his parent’s story through their liberation from Nazi concentration camps as told to him by his father. Accompanying this detailed history are simple, minimalistic drawings that Spiegelman uses to explore real life images and to create a type of universality for all readers. With that being said, Spiegelman’s Maus uses a combination of words and images to create an inviting, engaging, and realistic account of the Holocaust that effectively merges past experiences with present daily life.
Within the novels, Spiegelman uses a carefully calculated hybrid of text and visual in order to transform the narrowly relatable Holocaust experience into an open and inviting discussion for all readers. Most importantly, the predominant visual metaphor in MAUS is the depiction of German, Polish, and American Jews as mice. Drawing in a minimalistic and iconic style, Spiegelman relies on their simplicity to become the object of reader’s projection and sympathy. Interestingly, as the novel progresses, the mice drawings become less and less representative of mice and increasingly imitate a human form. For example, the novel’s prologue shows a young Artie and his father most closely resembling mice, complete with mouse ears, facial fur, and even tails (Spiegelman 5-6, panels 1-10). Yet these details become decreasingly prominent as the story moves forward. By the end of MAUS I, it is only his triangular head and ears that separates Artie and the other mice from a rough human sketch (Spiegelman 160-161). By initially illustrating his characters as welcoming and cartoonish, Spiegelman prompts the reader to project themselves into the story and experience thoughts, feelings, and emotions the same way the characters do. As the Jews become less and less animalistic, the reader is trapped in a human experience without realizing it. Furthermore, it is this disassembling of the mouse allegory that allows Spiegelman to elicit sympathy and compassion for the oppressed in their situation. With that in mind, it is equally important to consider why, then, do the novel’s other characters remain unchanged throughout the story? Although the mice eventually lose their whiskers, their tails, and other specific traits, the Nazi cats in the story never lose their stripes or whiskers, nor do the pigs ever become less distinctive. Spiegelman’s choice in allowing the mice to become more and more iconic and universal while other characters/nationalities remain unchanged prevents the reader from sympathizing with or relating to any group other than the Polish and German Jews. In doing so, Spiegelman successfully transforms the selective trauma and suffering of the Holocaust into something that is palatable and understandable for all audiences.
To further demonstrate the effectiveness of the choice to keep the illustrations simple, we can contrast the MAUS drawings with Spiegelman’s Prisoner on Planet Hell comic, which describes the emotional trauma surrounding his mother’s suicide. The comic-within-a-comic starkly contrasts MAUS’s simplified artwork with highly stylized, detailed drawings of real humans that depict Art’s personal distress and suffering following the death of his mother (Spiegelman 102-105). Whereas Maus uses vague illustrations to create an inviting and relatable experience, Prisoner on Planet Hell feels isolated, personal, and specific in comparison. On that note, often times reading a historical account leaves the reader disconnected and disinterested; however, Spiegelman manages to create an involved and educational narrative without ever directly addressing the reader. In short, through his oversimplification of illustration, Spiegelman achieves what a traditional novel can not.
Ostensibly, MAUS Tales gives an explicit history of the Jewish experience throughout the Holocaust. Implicitly, however, Spiegelman emphasizes the psychological torment produced from inconceivable suffering and its lasting effect throughout generations, continuing into the present day. From the first chapter, Spiegelman incorporates signifiers of both the past and present in his drawings as well as his text. Within the first few pages, the reader is shown Vladek’s concentration camp tattoo, pre-War photographs of both Artie’s parents, and even historically accurate depictions of telephones (Spiegelman 14-15). Yet the past is seamlessly integrated into the present with the inclusion of Artie. For example, in chapter three, Artie’s body physically becomes the link between the past and present-day. Lying on the floor of his father’s New York apartment, Artie is looking in Vladek’s direction as he waits for the narrative to continue. Meanwhile, his legs are literally overlapping the previous frame that illustrates Vladek hiding in army trenches (Spiegelman 47, panels 1-2). By doing so, Spiegelman is disallowing the past to be removed from the present. Similarly, there is a verbal intersection of past history and present experiences. When Vladek is detailing his experience cleaning stables as a Prisoner of War, he interrupts his own thought: “But look what you do, Artie! You’re dropping on the carpet cigarette ashes.You want it should be like a stable here?” (54). As the story moves forward, these narrative interruptions become slightly more sinister and haunting. For example by Maus II, Artie’s cigarette smoke billows up to become the smoke of dead bodies being burned in the Auschwitz crematorium (Spiegelman 229, frames 7-9). By including these moments, Spiegelman proves that the past and the present are not mutually exclusive: it is impossible to understand the present without first understanding the past, and vice versa. Ultimately, he is asking the reader to consider their relationship with history, suggesting a sort of continuousness of the past into the present-day.
All in all, The Complete MAUS Tales directly confronts and dismisses criticism that claims graphic novels are the lesser in comparison to conventional, non-pictorial novels. By creating a unique hybrid of both text and images, combined with carefully thought out animal allegory, Spiegelman transforms an insulated experience into something inviting and worthy of world-wide readership. In conjunction, he uses this universally palatable narrative to prompt an active engagement in historical events and successfully shows how these events transition into and impact the present-day.
Spiegelman, Art. The Complete Maus. Pantheon Books, 1991.